How is the Internet changing the way you think?

Every year for the past 13 years, John Brockman, founder of online publication Edge, poses a question to a diverse group of movers and shakers. In an essay for Nieman Reports – Harvard’s quarterly exploration of journalism – Brockman explains what makes a good question and gives some of the responses to this year’s question: “How is the Internet changing the way you think?”

Brockman writes:

“It’s not easy coming up with a question. As the artist James Lee Byars used to say: “I can answer the question, but am I bright enough to ask it?” Edge is a conversation. We are looking for questions that inspire answers we can’t possibly predict. Surprise me with an answer I never could have guessed. My goal is to provoke people into thinking thoughts that they normally might not have.

“The art of a good question is to find a balance between abstraction and the personal, to ask a question that has many answers, or at least one for which you don’t know the answer. It’s a question distant enough to encourage abstractions and not so specific that it’s about breakfast. A good question encourages answers that are grounded in experience but bigger than that experience alone.”

This year, the Edge question received 172 essays, puslished online as a 132,000=word manuscript. Brockman paraphrases some of the best (“Nick Bilton, lead writer of The New York Times’s Bits blog, notes that “[the] Internet is not changing how we think.”, New York Times columnist Virginia Heffernan writes that “we must keep on reading and not mistake new texts for new worlds, or new forms for new brains.”) and offers links to a select number of essays. 

Brockman also lists his favourite responses:

“I enjoyed the juxtaposition of responses by psychologist Steven Pinker, “Not At All,” and Chinese artist and cultural activist Ai Weiwei, “I Only Think on the Internet.” The response I most admired is George Dyson’s “Kayaks vs. Canoes.” It is a gem:

“In the North Pacific Ocean, there were two approaches to boatbuilding. The Aleuts (and their kayak-building relatives) lived on barren, treeless islands and built their vessels by piecing together skeletal frameworks from fragments of beach-combed wood. The Tlingit (and their dugout canoe-building relatives) built their vessels by selecting entire trees out of the rainforest and removing wood until there was nothing left but a canoe.

“The Aleut and the Tlingit achieved similar results—maximum boat/minimum material—by opposite means. The flood of information unleashed by the Internet has produced a similar cultural split. We used to be kayak builders, collecting all available fragments of information to assemble the framework that kept us afloat. Now, we have to learn to become dugout-canoe builders, discarding unnecessary information to reveal the shape of knowledge hidden within.

I was a hardened kayak builder, trained to collect every available stick. I resent having to learn the new skills. But those who don’t will be left paddling logs, not canoes”